Drug use rearrests up after Prop. 36

Times Staff Writers

Convicted drug users in California are more likely to be arrested on new drug charges since Proposition 36 took effect than before voters approved the landmark law mandating drug treatment rather than incarceration, according a long-awaited study released Friday.

The state-funded study, conducted by UCLA researchers who have pored over four years of drug-related court cases, raises new questions about the effectiveness of Proposition 36 at a time when lawmakers and courts are discussing stricter requirements for defendants.

UCLA researchers tracking drug offenders found high levels of new drug arrests among those eligible in the first year of Proposition 36, which took effect in 2001. About 50% of those offenders were picked up by police within 30 months, compared with 38% of similar offenders convicted before Proposition 36.

The report notes that some increases in arrests were expected because Proposition 36 left offenders on the street who would have previously served time.

But the research also underscores the difficulty the state has experienced in getting drug offenders into treatment and out of trouble.

Only about 25% of the defendants who are sentenced to drug treatment complete the programs. And data released Friday show that even among those who complete drug treatment, more than four in 10 had new drug arrests within 30 months of their Proposition 36 convictions.

The numbers are worse for those who don't finish drug treatment. Researchers were surprised to find that those who failed to show up for rehab were less likely to be rearrested than those who went to some treatment but dropped out: 55% compared with 60%.

Supporters of Proposition 36 said the report shows how hard it is to treat a chronic disease like drug addiction but argue that the obvious conclusion is that more intensive treatment services are needed.

But critics, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, believe that the initiative needs to be overhauled and have advocated adding jail sanctions for participants who relapse.

UCLA researchers said their study shows the measure has helped tens of thousands of drug users complete treatment but needs more money to improve supervision and intensify treatment.

"We have a lot of serious addicts in Proposition 36, and a lot of them are warehoused in treatment that's not appropriate for their needs," said Angela Hawken, a UCLA researcher who worked on the study.

"It needs tightening up, even though it really has been a major improvement over what was done before. We face a major prison crisis in this state, and if we're going to get this law to help us, we need to improve it."

The UCLA researchers have spent the last four years examining about 200,000 Proposition 36 cases, providing the first long-range look at how defendants fared after their initial sentences. The review released Friday tracked 44,000 defendants sentenced from July 2001 through June 2002.

The data showed lower rates of new arrests for property crimes among those who finished treatment, nearly 10% compared with about 17% of defendants who dropped out of the program. Arrests for violent crimes were low for all groups. Overall, the report found Proposition 36 had no direct effect on crime trends.

The report will probably be a factor in budget talks in Sacramento, where Schwarzenegger has proposed a $25-million cut to the program. The researchers instead called for at least $79 million more in funds to increase supervision of defendants and address treatment shortages.

The report also highlighted disparities, with young Latino males far less likely than other groups to enter long-term residential treatment. In addition, few Proposition 36 defendants received narcotic-replacement therapy, such as methadone, despite widespread evidence that it is effective in helping addicts.

The findings come as Schwarzenegger and other critics are seeking to add sanctions to the program in an effort to encourage more offenders to complete their treatment.

Repeated studies, including the most recent, show that of the nearly 50,000 people sentenced under the proposition each year, nearly a third do not report for treatment. Of those who do enter rehab, about two-thirds fail to complete it.

Last year, Schwarzenegger signed a law that made it easier for judges to exclude some offenders while adding jail sanctions for those who relapse.

But supporters of Proposition 36 warn that adding jail stints would signal a shift away from treating drug addiction as a health problem, arguing that voters in 2000 backed treatment, not jail. They sued the governor and won an injunction temporarily blocking last year's reforms from being implemented.

Margaret Dooley, Proposition 36 coordinator for the Drug Policy Alliance, said the latest assessment shows that any cuts to funding by Schwarzenegger are "absolutely the wrong way to go."

"If he had any doubt about that," said Dooley, whose group has been a principal backer of the law, "I hope this clears that up."

She said the new drug arrests, including those by defendants who completed Proposition 36 treatment, reflect the chronic nature of drug addiction and are unsurprising. The failure rate the state has seen, she added, is in line with other treatment programs.

"If a person relapses, the response is treatment, same as when you have a relapse of cancer or if your diabetes becomes unmanageable and you have to go back and get it under control again," she said.

"If we kept more people in treatment longer, if they got the minimal dose of 90 days that we know is needed, if we didn't stick long-term opiate users in outpatient care, the results would be better. When we talk about drug crimes, we're talking about the effectiveness of our treatment and how people are faring afterward."

The UCLA study offered several recommendations for improving Proposition 36, options researchers said should be bundled together to improve results:

* Place more drug defendants in long-term treatment programs, including inpatient care, at an estimated cost of $19 million a year.

* Provide at least 90 days of treatment to all offenders, at a cost of $18 million a year. The length of treatment now varies widely, with many receiving far less than 90 days.

* Provide higher levels of narcotic replacement therapy for opiate users, at an annual cost of at least $3.7 million.

* Significantly increase community supervision -- particularly for offenders who enter Proposition 36 probation with multiple previous convictions -- at an annual cost of about $25 million.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Ana Maria Luna, who chairs a county Proposition 36 committee, said better supervision of offenders is vital to helping more of them get through treatment.

Most participants in Los Angeles are required to check in at kiosks run by the county's probation department.

A better system, Luna said, would use probation officers to go to the homes of participants who have long histories of drug use.

Such visits, though they would increase costs, would better determine whether offenders were using drugs and encourage more to take the program seriously, she said.

"Right now we just don't have the money to supervise them the way we'd like to," she said. "The only real supervision that we have in L.A. County is having the folks come back to court on a regular basis."

megan.garvey@latimes.com

jack.leonard@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Proposition 36 results

Drug offenders who were eligible for sentencing under Proposition 36 in its first year were more likely to be arrested again than similar offenders before the Proposition 36 rules took effect.

Percent rearrested within 30 months

Post-Proposition 36 group:

50.0%

Pre-Proposition 36 group:

38.1%

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Source: UCLA Integrated Substance Abuse Programs

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